Legal action on climate change

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There are various attempts to use the law to force governments and others to take action on climate change.

The website Climate Liability News reports on such actions.

Australia

Landmark Australian ruling rejects coal mine over global warming Bianca Nogrady; Nature; 11 Feb 2019

An Australian court has rejected an application for an open-cut coal mine because of its potential contribution to greenhouse-gas emissions and global warming.

The New South Wales Land and Environment Court turned down an appeal by mining company Gloucester Resources, which had sought to overturn a previous government decision against establishing a coal mine near the town of Gloucester in the Hunter Valley.

It is the first time a new coal mine has been rejected in Australia, the world’s leading coal exporter, because of the potential contribution to global warming.

2020

Australian Government sued by 23-year-old Melbourne student over financial risks of climate change ABC News; 22 July 2020

A 23-year-old Melbourne law student is suing the Australian Government for failing to disclose the risk climate change poses to Australians' super and other safe investments.

The world-first case filed on Wednesday in the Federal Court alleges the Government, as well as two government officials, failed in a duty to disclose how climate change would impact the value of government bonds.

Key points:

  • The world-first case alleges the Government failed in its duty to disclose climate change's impact on the value of government bonds
  • The case is being led by a 23-year-old student and investor who says she did it to "protect her future"
  • Experts say it could open the floodgates for other litigation by tying climate change to real-world financial risk

Europe

Ireland

Climate change: 'Huge' implications to Irish climate case across Europe BBC; 1 Aug 2020

A ruling by the Irish Supreme Court on climate change policy could have "huge ramifications" across Europe, the group which took the case has said.

On Friday the Supreme Court quashed the government's 2017 National Mitigation Plan.

Judges ruled that it did not give enough detail on the reduction of greenhouse gases.

The case was brought by the environmental group Friends of the Irish Environment.

Netherlands

Netherlands loses landmark global warming case, ordered to cut emissions Sebastian Anthony; ars technica; 24 Jun 2015

In a landmark case that may set a very important precedent for other countries around the world, especially within Europe, the Dutch government has been ordered by the courts to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent.

Portugal / ECHR

Six Portuguese youth file ‘unprecedented’ climate lawsuit against 33 countries Climate Home News; 3 Sept 2020

Six Portuguese young people have filed a legal action accusing 33 countries of violating their right to life by not doing their fair share to tackle the climate crisis.

This is the first climate change case to be filed with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, France. If admissible, it could set an important precedent, showing the way for other climate lawsuits based on human rights arguments.

Cláudia Agostinho (21), Catarina Mota (20), Martim Agostinho (17), Sofia Oliveira (15), André Oliveira (12) and Mariana Agostinho (8) are suing the 27 European member states, as well as the UK, Switzerland, Norway, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine for failing to make deep and urgent emissions cuts to safeguard their future.

Their complaint comes after lethal wildfires in Portugal in 2017 killed more than 120 people. Researchers have linked the intensity of the 2017 blaze to global warming. The case is being filed after Portugal recorded its hottest July in the last 90 years.

Phillipines

World's largest carbon producers face landmark human rights case John Vidal; Guardian; 27 Jul 2016

The world’s largest oil, coal, cement and mining companies have been given 45 days to respond to a complaint that their greenhouse gas emissions have violated the human rights of millions of people living in the Phillippines. In a potential landmark legal case, the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines (CHR), a constitutional body with the power to investigate human rights violations, has sent 47 “carbon majors” including Shell, BP, Chevron, BHP Billiton and Anglo American, a 60-page document accusing them of breaching people’s fundamental rights to “life, food, water, sanitation, adequate housing, and to self determination”.

Peru v. Germany

Peruvian farmer squares up to German power giant in climate lawsuit Sophie Hares; Reuters; 10 Nov 2017

TEPIC, Mexico (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In Peru’s snow-capped Cordillera Blanca mountains, fast-melting glaciers are pushing the cobalt waters of Lake Palcacocha dangerously high, raising fears it could overflow and send a huge wave of water and mud crashing to the town of Huaraz below.

Huaraz farmer and mountain guide Saúl Luciano Lliuya, who blames the world’s biggest emitters for the warmer temperatures shrinking the glaciers, will appeal his civil case on Monday against German utility RWE, which he thinks should contribute to reinforcing the lake – even though it has no operations in Peru.

USA

New York v fossil fuel companies

New York City sues ‘polluting’ Shell, BP and others Jonny Bairstow; Energy Live News; 11 Jan 2018

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city’s pension funds will withdraw around $5 billion (£3.7bn) of investments from fossil fuel companies.

It has also launched a lawsuit against the businesses it says have contributed most to the climate crisis – ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Shell and ConocoPhillips.

The city seeks damages for the impacts of climate change on the city. It says this has already amounted to billions of dollars, with billions more needed to prepare for rising sea levels, more powerful storms and hotter temperatures.

New York and Massachusetts

U.S. judge dismisses Exxon lawsuit to stop climate change probes Reuters; 29 Mar 2018

A federal judge on Thursday dismissed Exxon Mobil Corp’s lawsuit seeking to stop New York and Massachusetts from probing whether the company misled investors and the public about climate change and the potential effects on its business.

California

A California Court Might Have Just Opened The Floodgates For Climate Litigation Brian H. Potts; Forbes; 1 Mar 2018

On Tuesday, a federal district court in California issued a decision that could open the floodgates for climate-change litigation in federal courts around the country.

The United States District Court for the Northern District of California issued a procedural decision in California v. BP, LLC, a lawsuit brought by Oakland, San Francisco and various others against BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon and Royal Dutch Shell for selling fossil-fuel products that they allege cause global warming. The plaintiffs’ complaint asserts nuisance claims against the defendants under common law, seeking an abatement fund to help pay for sea walls and other climate-related defense infrastructure.

Back in 2011, however, the U.S. Supreme Court in its landmark American Electric Power v. Connecticut decision rejected similar nuisance claims brought against companies for burning fossil fuels. The high court found that these lawsuits based on federal common law were improperly in federal court because greenhouse gas emissions were already regulated by an existing federal law: the Clean Air Act.

But now, the California federal district court has said that the Supreme Court’s decision may not apply to all federal climate nuisance cases, and that some of them are still properly in federal court. In an about-face, the California court’s decision on Tuesday argues that the U.S. Supreme Court’s AEP ruling does not apply to all federal climate-change nuisance cases. The pending cases against these oil companies are still properly in federal court, according to U.S. District Judge William Alsup, because the Clean Air Act only regulates the companies that burn fossil-fuels, not the companies that sell them (like the defendants).

Children's case - Juliana v. United States

Climate Change Litigation - The Children Win In Court James Conca; Forbes; 1 Mar 2016

Against all odds, the 21 children, ages 8 to 19, who are suing the government to protect the environment against the harm of global warming in their future, have won in court. Again. In a surprise ruling on Friday from the bench in the ongoing climate case brought by these youths against the State of Washington’s Department of Ecology, King County Superior Court Judge Hollis Hill ordered the Department of Ecology to promulgate a carbon emissions reduction rule by the end of 2016 and make recommendations to the state legislature on science-based greenhouse gas reductions in the 2017 legislative session. Judge Hill also ordered the Department of Ecology to consult with the young plaintiffs in advance of that recommendation.

Judge Denies Motions by Fossil Fuel Industry and Federal Government in Landmark Climate Change Case EcoWatch; 9 Apr 2016

U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin of the Federal District Court in Eugene, Oregon, decided in favor of 21 young plaintiffs in their landmark constitutional climate change case against the federal government. Judge Coffin ruled Friday against the motion to dismiss brought by the fossil fuel industry and federal government.

Children Win Another Climate Change Legal Case In Mass Supreme Court James Conca; Forbes; 19 May 2016

In another surprising victory for children suing the government over climate change, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court last Friday found in favor of four youth plaintiffs against the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. The Court found that the DEP was not complying with its legal obligation to reduce the State’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and ordered the agency to “promulgate regulations that address…greenhouse gas emissions, impose a limit on emissions that may be released…and set limits that decline on an annual basis.” This case is one of several similar cases in federal district courts in Oregon and Washington, and in the state courts of North Carolina, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Colorado. All of these legal cases are supported by Our Children’s Trust, that seeks the legal right of our youth to a healthy atmosphere and stable climate in the future.

Trump could face the ‘biggest trial of the century’ — over climate change Chelsea Harvey; Washington Post; 1 Dec 2016

A few weeks ago, a federal judge in Oregon made headlines when she ruled that a groundbreaking climate lawsuit will proceed to trial. And some experts say its outcome could rewrite the future of climate policy in the United States.

The case, brought by 21 youths aged 9 to 20, claims that the federal government isn’t doing enough to address the problem of climate change to protect their planet’s future — and that, they charge, is a violation of their constitutional rights on the most basic level. The case has already received widespread attention, even garnering the support of well-known climate scientist James Hansen, who has also joined as a plaintiff on behalf of his granddaughter and as a guardian for “future generations.”

The U.S. government under President Obama, along with several others representing members of the fossil fuel industry, filed to have the lawsuit dismissed. But on Nov. 10, federal judge Ann Aiken denied the motion, clearing the case to proceed to trial. According to Our Children’s Trust, the nonprofit representing the youth plaintiffs, a recent case management conference indicated that the case would likely go to trial by summer or early fall of 2017.

US Supreme Court allows historic kids’ climate lawsuit to go forward Emma Marris; Nature news; 3 Nov 2018

A landmark climate-change lawsuit brought by young people against the US government can proceed, the Supreme Court said on 2 November. The case, Juliana v. United States, had been scheduled to begin trial on 29 October in Eugene, Oregon, in a federal district court. But those plans were scrapped last month after President Donald Trump's administration asked the Supreme Court to intervene and dismiss the case.

The plaintiffs, who include 21 people ranging in age from 11 to 22, allege that the government has violated their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property by failing to prevent dangerous climate change. They are asking the district court to order the federal government to prepare a plan that will ensure the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere falls below 350 parts per million by 2100, down from an average of 405 parts per million in 2017.

By contrast, the US Department of Justice argues that “there is no right to ‘a climate system capable of sustaining human life’” — as the Juliana plaintiffs assert.

Although the Supreme Court has now denied the Trump administration's request to the dismiss the case, the path ahead is unclear. In its 2 November order, the Supreme Court suggested that a federal appeals court should consider the administration's arguments before any trial starts in the Oregon district court.

Lawyers for the young people said they would push the district court to reschedule the trial next week.

Court Quashes Youth Climate Change Case Against Government John Schwartz; New York Times; 17 Jan 2020

A federal appeals court has thrown out the landmark climate change lawsuit brought on behalf of young people against the federal government.

While the young plaintiffs “have made a compelling case that action is needed,” wrote Judge Andrew D. Hurwitz in a 32-page opinion, climate change is not an issue for the courts. “Reluctantly, we conclude that such relief is beyond our constitutional power. Rather, the plaintiffs’ impressive case for redress must be presented to the political branches of government.”

The two members in the majority of the three-judge panel thus agreed with the Trump administration that the issues brought up in the case, Juliana v. United States did not belong before the courts.

The appeals court decision reverses an earlier ruling by a district court judge, Ann Aiken, that would have let the case go forward. Instead, the appeals court gave instructions to the lower court to dismiss the case.

Canada

New Canadian Bill Would Help Cities Sue Oil Industry for Climate Damages Karen Savage; Climate Liability News; 26 Mar 2018

A Canadian legislator introduced a bill on Monday to protect Ontario residents from the costs of climate change-related damages and to make it easier to force fossil fuel companies to pay for infrastructure improvements needed to protect communities from climate impacts.

“This act will give Ontarians the legal means to seek compensation from the world’s major polluters for their fair share of those costs,” said Peter Tabuns, a Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) representing Toronto-Danforth, who introduced the bill.

Known as the Liability for Climate-Related Harms Act of 2018, Tabuns said the bill is similar to tobacco liability legislation used to hold tobacco companies liable for the health costs of tobacco use.

“This bill defines the nature of evidence to be produced and it simplifies this whole action,” said Tabuns, who said the bill is structured to assume strict liability on the part of producers.

“There is an assumption in this bill that climate change is caused by man-made action—the emission of CO2 into the atmosphere—and it sets a threshold for determining whether a particular event has caused damage,” said Tabuns, adding that the threshold would be consistent with the one established internationally.

“This Bill appears to be the first in the world to directly impose strict liability—liability without proof of fault—on fossil fuel companies for climate impacts,” said Andrew Gage, staff lawyer for the West Coast Environmental Law Association (WCEL), which endorsed the bill.